China To Admit WHO SARS-CoV-2 Investigation Team – Unclear If They Will Enter Wuhan
On 5 January, WHO confirmed that 2 members of its 10 person mission were turned away at China’s doorstep, after official approvals that WHO understood to be finalized were held up at the last minute.

After months of delay, China has confirmed that a WHO research team investigating the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus will finally be allowed to enter the country on Thursday, 14 January –  a week after Beijing blocked their entry, leaving two international experts stuck in transit.

Members of the task force will now be able to enter China’s national health authority said on Monday, with Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, later confirming this in a tweet.

This is a landmark moment in the ongoing investigation into the origins of the current coronavirus pandemic – setting in motion a mission that was first mandated by the World Health Assembly (WHA) in May 2020.

Since then, however, there have been multiple delays in getting the investigation off of the ground; the ten team members were only named and terms of reference created in the autumn.

In December, when WHO confirmed the organization would be deploying the investigative team to China in January, Wuhan was not specifically mentioned as a place that the team would visit.

Then on 5 January, WHO confirmed that two members of its 10-person mission were turned away at China’s doorstep, after official visa approvals that WHO understood to be finalized were held up at the last minute. China claimed this was a “misunderstanding”.

China Strictly Controlling SARS-CoV-2 Research & Suggesting Alternative Origins Narrative

In the year since the pandemic began, China has strictly controlled domestic research on the sensitive topic of the virus origins, effectively closing off most channels of query or visits by foreign researchers and media. Most recently, that included blocking a BBC crew last month from visiting caves in China’s Yunnan Province, which harbour the species of horshoe bats that carry genetically-similar coronaviruses, where a number of miners also died in 2012 from a mysterious pneumonia-like illness.

China’s state-controlled news channels have meanwhile begun to construct an alternative narrative, claiming that the human infections with SARS-CoV-2 may not have first originated in China at all – even though China is the place where the most genetically comparable strains of coronaviruses have been reported to be circulating in the wild, in bat populations.

Even now, it remains unclear if the investigative team will be able to visit “ground zero” – Wuhan, where the first clusters of human infection emerged in December 2019. WHO has repeatedly insisted that any epidemiological investigation must begin with the first cluster of human cases: and those were found in Wuhan. Those first clusters included employees and shoppers at a Wuhan market where wild animals were sold for slaughter and human consumption.

However, some of the first COVID-19 cases seen in Wuhan or among visitors to the city also could not be traced back the market. This has stirred speculation that the virus could even have escaped from a local bioresearch facility that was doing research into coronaviruses. Other experts have also suggested that people from the rural parts of China where similar strains of the virus circulate the wild could have first become infected – and then carried the infection, or a mutation, to Wuhan, a city of 10 million people that is also a major trade and manufacturing center.

Along with China’s inherent resistance to any independent scrutiny of the virus origins, the US administration of outgoing President Donald Trump has also exacerbated the geopolitical tensions around the investigation, accusing WHO of bias and blaming China for the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

At a November session of the World Health Assembly, the deputy director of the US Department of Health and Human Services, Garrett Grigsby, charged that the just-published terms of reference for the investigative team were “not negotiated in a transparent way with all WHO member states”.

“Understanding the origins of COVID-19 through a transparent and inclusive investigation is what must be done” in order to meet that mandate, he said.

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